Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday Morning Stories With Mookie - Episode 52

The Time Mookie Hiked Up Pikes Peak

When "Megan (*)" and I moved to Colorado Springs, the first thing I noticed upon my arrival was the inescapable view of Pikes Peak.  While Pikes Peak is no where near the biggest mountain in the world (or even in Colorado), to this born-and-raised guy from flat-ass was pretty big.  No matter where you went, the view to the immediate west was always Pikes Peak.  In fact, the living room windows of our first apartment faced the mountain, so it was the first thing you saw everyday when you opened the curtains. Of course we also had a "terrific" view of the Safeway grocery store across the street, and all of their striking union grocery workers for a few months too, but that is an entirely different story and I digress.

So obviously, going to the top of the mountain was definitely on my "to do" list while we lived in Colorado.  I figured Megan and I at some point would take a drive to the top via the famed Pikes Peak Highway, but little did I know my eventual trip up the mountain would be self-propelled. 

I was working at Walmart at the time and became friends with a guy named Chris.  He told me that he had hiked up the mountain via the Barr Trail a few months prior, and was looking to do it again. The Barr Trail started in a nearby town called Manitou Springs.  This is the same trail that is used for the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent races they have every year.  So it is a well-beaten path, but not terribly big and definitely not any less rugged.  The kicker of this trail is how steep it is and how quickly it ascends to the top.  It climbs 7,800 feet and is 12.6 miles long.  It is definitely not suited for weak-kneed people.  Add to that the mountain itself is 14,110 feet high above sea level, so it is nothing to mess around with.

When Chris said he and another Walmart guy (a guy named Dave) were going to do it again, he invited me along for the fun.  I of course said yes because who was I to turn down mountain climbing?  When I told Megan of the plan, she offered up the idea of driving up the mountain herself, meeting us at the top, and then giving us a ride back down.  This pretty much made the trip a done deal.  Chris agreed this was ideal, and we picked a particular day to do it.

So what does one pack on a mountain climbing trip? Well I wasn't going up Mt. Everest here, so I didn't need any crampons, ice picks, or a Sherpa named Nukyuk. The weather was forecasted to be mild, so I wore my most comfortable shoes, shorts and a t-shirt.  I had a hat, sunglasses, and a backpack full of essentials: a light jacket, a shitload of water, sandwiches, and protein/carb fueled snacks.  

Chris said to meet up at his house about 5:30AM.  That way we could make it to Manitou by 6:00 and start our trip.  He said our hike could take about 6 hours, so we needed to get an early start before it got too hot.  A big question mark in the matter was when Megan knew what time to meet us at the top.  We came to a general consensus as to when she should probably be there, but I told her I would take my cell phone with me, and call her when we got above the timber-line (i.e. the place where the altitude is so high trees can't live anymore) to give her a better idea.  Please note, this was 1996 - so my cellphone was like a small brick in my bag.  Plus I had no idea if I would get reception up on the mountain, so we just hoped it would work.

The day of the hike arrived and I showed up at Chris' house at 5:30AM on the nose.  The other guy (Dave) wasn't there yet, so we waited.  And we waited.  And we waited.  Finally at six, Chris called up Dave to see where the hell he was.  To make a long story short, Dave answered the phone hungover as hell, apologized, and said he wasn't going to make it.  Yeah.  Thanks Dave.  So Chris and I set out for Manitou, and the Barr Trail.

The first thing I realized, was that I was going to spend most of my day going "up." Colorado Springs sits at 6,035 feet above sea level.  Manitou Springs is 300-400 feet higher than that, and the top of the mountain was 14,110.  Oh good lord.

Chris and I made it to the trail head about 6:45, so we were already 45 minutes behind schedule.  We hoped this wouldn't be a huge problem, and would hopefully avoid any rain that day.  With our packs on our backs, we set out on our trip up Pikes Peak.

The first thing you notice right away is that you can't even SEE Pikes Peak.  You start out hiking through the foothills below the mountain, and you don't even see the  top until like halfway up.  Anyway, the trip up the mountain is definitely a workout.  It starts out as a winding path that goes in a back and forth formation that are called "switchbacks."  I suppose they are called this because you go one way for awhile, and then you switch back to the other direction.  I dunno.

We take breaks at fairly often intervals, and I am surprised at how much I am dragging.  I was not it terrible shape, but we aren't even halfway and I am getting gassed.  As the trail crosses through a rock with a big hole in it, Chris tells me that this is sort of like "half way to half way."  Huh?  He tells me that half way up the mountain is a place they call "Barr Camp," and there is a cabin there and space to camp out if you wanted to do so.  So while it is comforting to know we have made progress up the hill, its disappointing we aren't halfway yet.  While I spent a lot of time looking down and little more than a few feet in front of me due to the rugged nature of the trail, I did take in the scenery around me from time to time.  Early on, it was just like hiking through the woods.  LOTS of trees, and rocks.  Nothing fabulous, but pretty if you are into the mountainous tree scenery.  Eventually we come into a clearing, and a sign states that we have arrived at Barr Camp.  We decide to stop, have a snack, and recharge a bit.  There are several people milling about, and sharing in our idea of taking a break.  There are a variety of people here.  Some are runners, some are mountain bikers, and some are hikers like us.  I notice a family sitting next to us, and a girl of maybe 10 years old is looking at me.  I ask her if she is having fun climbing the mountain.  She says: "Yeah.  We did it yesterday, and we had so much fun we are doing it again today!"

This amuses me, and yet makes me feel like a piece of crap.  This 10 year old girl is doing this for a second day in a row, and my fat ass is dragging at the halfway point of a single day climb.  Get away from me kid.

Chris and I decide we needed to press on, so we left the restful Barr Camp and continued up the mountain.  Up, up, up, switchback, switchback, climb climb climb.  Eventually, we get to a place where we can actually see the mountain, and can look back behind us and see how high we really are.  It was pretty incredible. The top of the mountain still looked forever away, but was certainly closer than it was when we started.  The higher we went, the vegetation and trees started to become more sparse, and the terrain started becoming more rocky.  The last "green" part I remember was a huge area that looked like a beautiful rock garden.  It was just a field of rocks and boulders amidst a green covered ground.  After looking at it for a minute, I quickly realized that the rocks were probably the size of houses, and it was just really far away.  It was just amazingly desolate.

Finally, it became apparent we had just arisen over the timberline, and any green living things were now below us.  I figured I should try to call Megan on my cellphone and let her know where we were.  Amazingly the call went through.  I told her where we were, and what time - according to Chris -  we should be at the top.  She then told me that some guy from Pepsi had called me, and wanted to set up an interview.  I had applied to be a Merchandiser at the local Pepsi distributor in Colorado Springs, so this was good news.  Then Megan tells me "He wants you to call him back today." Well shit.  I'm about 11,000 feet up a GD mountain.  So I tell her to give me the number and I call the guy.

He starts in by saying he'd like to meet with me TODAY, and see about getting things started the next day.  I tell him that is probably not going to happen since I am currently sitting at the timberline on Pikes Peak.  He comes back with a simple "Oh.  Are you on a cell phone?"  No Captain Douche, I'm at a payphone at the nearest boulder.  We set up a time to meet the following day, and we end our call. That's right.  I just set up a job interview while climbing a mountain.

Chris and I continue on, and it hurts.  I begin bitching to myself, and to Chris as well.  He's dragging too, and bitching about as much as I am.  "This sucks!"  "Are we there yet?"  We are now up on the rock face of the mountain, and you can actually see the trail snaking clear across the face, and how it winds up to the top.  There is still a long way to go.  I must mention that I am now finally feeling the effects of the altitude.  I notice my breathing is a lot more labored in the thinner oxygen, and my heart is beating like a drum.

Meanwhile, Megan had started her journey up the mountain in her car.  Her adventure was no less amazing with the endless views and danger sitting at every corner.  The road literally is along the edge of the mountain as it winds to the top, and one wrong turn would send you cascading down the side of it.  This doesn't prevent Megan from snapping pictures on the way up though.  One of her better ones includes a cloud that happens to be right NEXT to her car.  Yeah, she was getting pretty high up.

On our journey across the face of the mountain, Chris and I came to a point where the trail turned at the edge of a cliff.  The bottom was probably a good thousand feet down, so it was a definitely time for photo.  We each took the other's picture standing next to the cliff, trying to look cool.  We weren't.

Finally we came to a section that was easily the most unstable and demanding climb of the trip.  Either that or we were just REALLY tired.  A sign saying "16 Golden Stairs" lay at the beginning of this section, and Chris said "This is it.  After this we are at the top."  Hell. Yes.  So we start up this rugged section, and I quickly surmise that the sign is misleading because we were on this thing for what seemed like FOREVER.  Finally, the trail starts to level out and we reach the TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN.  Wow.

I turn around and look back at the city of Colorado Springs, and the trail below me.  It is incredible.  I quickly wonder where Megan is, and if she has been waiting or if she even made it up.  At the top of the mountain is a visitor center, so we head there.  We found Megan inside and she gave me a big hug.  One that said "I'm proud of you," and also said "nice job for not dying."

There was a sign inside the visitor center that read "Welcome to the top of Pikes Peak: Colorado's 30th highest peak."  I had to read that twice.  30th???  Are you shitting me?  After looking it up later, I found that Colorado has around 50 mountains that are over 14,000 feet high.  The highest is Mt. Elbert at 14,440, so it isn't THAT much higher that Pikes Peak, but STILL!  No matter, I was still pretty proud of going up 7,800 feet on a 12.6 mile trail in about 5 1/2 hours.  Not too bad.

After a rest, and some required pictures off the top of the mountain, we all piled into Megan's car to make the trip down the mountain.  There were signs everywhere to make sure you were aware of your car's brakes.  Obviously you were going to be using them a lot, but one needs to be careful not to over-use them.  Megan's car was a manual transmission, so this definitely helped to not abuse the brakes.  She would leave the car in a lower gear, and let the engine restrict how fast we could go.  Part way down the mountain was an area for people to pull over to let their brakes cool down.  There was a ranger of some kind that was there helping people, and telling them to pull over if their wheels were too hot.  The guy let Megan know she was doing an "excellent" job of mountain driving, and her car was fine.

Finally, we made it off the mountain and made our way over to Manitou Springs and Chris' car.  We dropped him off at his car, and headed home.  By the time we had picked up my car and made it home, my muscles said "no more."  I could hardly walk, and ended up sitting in the tub for like an hour trying to relax everything.

By the next day though, I was pretty much OK.  I definitely wouldn't have been like that 10 year old girl and hiked the mountain again a second straight day though.  That was crazy.  And yes, I just admitted a 10 year old girl is more fit than I am.

Miss a previous Monday Morning Story?  Click HERE to catch up.

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